Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dropbox rocks

I migrated from Live Mesh beta at work, defecting to Dropbox, and I'm extremely pleased with my decision thus far.

First, some background to set the context of my enjoyment of Dropbox.

I used to use a pretty good piece of software from Microsoft (seriously, good software from Microsoft, I'm not kidding) called SyncToy. I synced my data between my laptop and desktop with a portable USB drive in between them, driven by SyncToy. 

Then I found myself in a Windows 7 environment, and SyncToy didn't play nice, if at all. So the sands of time buried my use of SyncToy and I had to find an alternative method of keeping my data backed up and accessible across the machines I use. Along with Windows 7, we had Microsoft Live Mesh Beta for file-sharing. I used it, it had its usefulness, but I never liked it - it was not elegant at all, quite cumbersome, in fact.

Using Live Mesh beta was just non-intuitive. The interface was slow, and it also wasn't readily apparent how to invite someone to share a folder. Then Microsoft announced that it would be ending the beta and launching Live Mesh 2011. The notice included that Live Mesh 2011 will only work on Windows machines, and that iced it for me, given that I had recently started using Ubuntu. I promptly told my boss "we need more flexibility than this, I'll find something else."

Live Mesh beta phased out at the end of March, and Windows Live Mesh launched April 1st, merging Live Mesh and Live Sync... and SkyDrive, um, sort of. Confused? Yeah, me too - what a cluttered, dog's breakfast.

Enter Dropbox, a simple name, a simple idea - just drop all your files in this box and access them anywhere - regardless of device, regardless of operating system - through an interface that is clean, bright, fast, stable and provides clear settings and options.

A free 2GB Dropbox is more than twice as small as Live Mesh's generous 5GB (but hold that thought).

I copied all our shared files to a new folder in my Dropbox, shared that new folder with my boss with an invitation to set up his own account and all of this took about ten or twelve minutes....oh, and both he and I got an additional 250MB tacked on to our storage limit, free. I can, through sharing and inviting others, expand my limit up to 8GB of free storage (60% bigger than Live Mesh).

And sharing is easy because I don't have to ask "do you use Windows?" (and, truth be told, more and more people in my world are answering "no" to that question). Dropbox works exactly the same on Windows, Mac AND LINUX, on Blackberry and iPhone (and, I will assume and verify) on webOS. Currently, I've got 3.2GB of free storage, and I'm sharing with clients, colleagues, peers and family members in Canada, the United States and Australia. One of those with whom I'm sharing is my son - he was able to have a Dropbox installed at his junior high school computer lab (and he's decided he's a "Mac guy"). Many of these people first got into Dropbox in response to my invitation to share and they have since implemented Dropbox in their world, sharing with their various networks of people. All of them are now enjoying a seamless, easily-implemented solution.

Going forward, if I migrate my info management from my trusty Palm Treo to the new webOS, or if my next computer comes without Windows at all (whether full Ubuntu, or a webOS ToughPad, or Mac or whatever) or if I get my engineer son a Mac like he uses at his school's computer lab or an iPad...whatever the case, finding good web tools that are platform-neutral will be increasingly preferred and sought.

Dropbox puts an icon in the system tray that shows a green checkmark when all files are synced, and blue, dual recycle-arrows when changes have been made that are being updated across folders. The icon also allows a user to launch Dropbox on the web where additional tools and settings can be accessed.

Users can install Dropbox on any machine and that Dropbox folder is added to the shared network for that log in ID. When working at a place where Dropbox can't (or shouldn't) be installed, all files can be accessed via the Dropbox website (when working with files, you can download, edit/modify and be sure to upload back to your online Dropbox). When next you access an installed Dropbox, whether at home, at work, or on a laptop or smartphone, your files will be updated and kept in sync.

I did read an interesting blog article that provides a solution to a problem with Dropbox. The writer's concern is that the Dropbox servers are not opened, so sensitive or confidential data may be vulnerable. He provides a detailed workaround to set up an encrypted folder within your Dropbox. Having said that, he also mentions that his solution requires encfs which, according to him, is only available on Mac or Linux [edit: Ed Bott went the other way in wake of Dropbox's new TOS and demonstrates some of the features and functionality of Live Mesh that he appreciates.]
So, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Dropbox may not be perfect for every use. But for what it is, what it does, and what it costs, it's fantastic. That same blogger began and ended his article with glowing accolades, notwithstanding the issue for which he offered the encryption workaround.

So, yeah, get Dropbox.